The Norse have spread their culture across much northern Eurasia. They’ve travelled far—settlements exist in Greenland, Scotland, and extend deep into Rus, founding Holmgard (which might one day become Novgorod) and Kiev. They’ve travelled to Byzantium in the Roman Empire, and are aware of China and India via the trade that the Romans have with those nations via the Silk Road. It is said that some intrepid voyagers have even reached as far as Vinland, far to the west.
Despite this diaspora, the Norse in Dark Earth share a relatively similar culture, which is detailed below. You can find unique differences by region below under Regional Variations.
Some Norse Terms
Norse Pantheon: The Æsir.
Cleric, Priest: Goði
Dragon, Dragonborn (creatures): Linnorm – Note that Norse dragons don’t fly (they burrow), and dragonborn are viewed as baby dragons. The Níðhöggr and Jörmungandr are linnorms.
Dwarf: Svartálfar – Taller than normal dwarves, they’re basically swarthy elves. (Grimm’s interpretation.)
Elf: Álfr – Broken down into Dökkálfar and Ljósálfar, the equivalent of Drow and Wood/High/Eladrin type elves. (Grimm’s interpretation.)
Giant, Ogre, Troll: Jǫtunn, “trǫll”: What the Norse call trolls are more of a subtype of ogre. Both of them, and any associated relatively “smaller” creatures such as orcs, are sometimes lumped together with the “Jötunn”, or giants. Norse “Jötunn” have a complex society, their own pantheons and their own afterlives, and will battle the humans in the final battle of Ragnarök.
Titles: Konungr: King, Fylkir: king/high priest, Jarl: Earl, Hofding: Chief), Thane: Lord or other noble, Hersir: General, Leader
Playing a Viking
Norse PCs in Dark Earth will be occasionally called by their people—and others—as “Vikings”. The word “Viking”, amongst the Norse, is loosely translated as “sea voyager”, or adventurer, although to many other peoples it came to mean freebooter, pirate, or raider. Most Vikings have spent their lives fighting for survival. They have known privation and cold, bitter cold, throughout their lifetimes. For generations, there has been very little aid coming from their gods. Magic is rare, and those with it are highly praised; only a few sorcerers remain amongst the people, and the few Goði that remain have very little magic among them.
Life as a Viking
When not fighting for survival, the Vikings are a bold, lusty, outgoing people. Giving up hope is not something they often do. Boisterous, loud and generally accepting of most, the Norse fear very little and are accepting of much, displaying a great curiosity about new cultures, adventures and tales. It is this outgoing nature which tends to make them quite likeable to most folk. Hungry for stories and tales, skalds are highly revered amongst them, and storytellers can always find a place at any hearth.
They drink ale and beer, usually with some sort of fruit or herbal additive, as well as mead, and lots of it—but are well aware of the dangers of overindulgence. The Norse are beekeepers and they enjoy honeyed mead and honey as a sweetener. For meat, they tend to hunt game; boar is a favorite, but they also herd animals such as sheep, and they grow crops just as any other people do.
As they are Vikings, travel is common. Fleeing from trolls and jötunn, or, worse, areas destroyed by marauding Linnorm, the Norse have managed to settle in Finland, Greenland, Scotland, and Garðaríki (Russia). They have come from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and many have integrated or conquered local tribes and formed societies while others are clinging on to existence. Just about all of the Norse lands are connected via the capital of Denmark, Hedeby, the port and trade hub that links the Baltic and North Seas with the Black Sea via Garðaríki. Viking longships were primarily built for river, fjord and coastal travel, and they would portage their longships overland to move from river to river to travel far distances—sailing via rivers that ran down the length of Russia and Eastern Europe to reach Byzantium from as far away as Scotland.
Oathbreaking is detested amongst them. To be thought of as less than a warrior is a grave insult, as all Vikings, whether they are adventurers or not, wish to be known as willing to stand up in protection of their people. Yet despite this desire to fight, they do not kill one another easily, and have developed the tradition of Holmgang in order to avoid senseless deaths. They will argue quite a bit though!
Another common practice is flyting, the ritual exchange of insults. Done poetically and for amusement and entertainment, it is not done harshly so much as for the fun of it all. Cruelty is not the true aim here so much as to see how creative one can be.
Government, Society and Education
With the constant encroachment of the enemy, no good structure for Norse society could stand for very long. While village elders and headmen are respected in Hedeby, Holmsgard and Uppsala, there is no formal governmental structure to be had in any of those places. Godi advise the people, merchants make sure they get fed and the elders tend to manage conflicts, but the places are run out of a general community sense of defense rather than in any organized way.
Women have a very strong part to play in Norse society. While still concerned with the hearth and matters of family, they are also the society’s premier magic-users, masters of the secrets of sorcerous magic. Quite a few skalds are female, and there are numerous female warriors as well, but the number is low as the society prefers to keep women who can bear children out of the line of fire because of the need for repopulation.
At one point in Norse history, prisoners taken in war would be killed, sacrificed to the gods, or turned into thralls, a form of somewhat-enlightened slavery. However, the expansion of the giant and troll civilizations combined with the dwindling of the populace have produced a cultural shift where the exchange of prisoners to preserve Norse lives has made it a priority to keep enemy survivors alive to trade them.
The Norse pray a lot, though they do not build many temples, preferring to worship outdoors. They will raise runestones to honor their ancestors and the gods alike. They make sacrifices in nines, and usually do so by ritual hangings—of animals such as goats, sheep, dogs, horses and even condemned prisoners. Nine is an important number for the Norse. Prayers are answered rarely, it takes longer, and requires much sacrifice to gain even the smallest bit of magic each day.
Despite this, they do not let their deprivation or the unfortunate nature of their current conditions get them down. After all, their lives can be seen as quite fatalistic: their myths and legends speak of a good end for their people. While the promised end that many seek—a noble death, where valkyries pluck the dead from battlefields and take them to Valhalla (Odin’s realm, for warriors), , Folkvang (Freya’s realm), or Hel (Hel’s realm)—is currently denied them as their gods sleep, that hasn’t stopped the Norse from being optimistic. They’re certain that if they just sacrifice some more, the time will come when they’ll sort things out. After all, they already know how the world is going to end, and this isn’t it, at least just yet—but the winter that’s gripping their lands is starting to seem like the foreshadowing of it.
Views of Other Cultures and Non-Human Races
Racially, Viking society consists primarily of humans and the trollblooded. The trollblooded are primarily the children or descendants of humans and thralls who appear, for the most part, to be very large humans although there are some regional differences. Much rarer are dwarves (who are taller than the standard D&D race) and are known primarily as crafters; elves (who are viewed as inherently magical beings of great beauty and light, and rarely go unnoticed in society), and half-elves. A small number of elementally-touched genasi exist. Aasimar, distant descendants of those who once mated with Valkyries centuries ago, are beloved by the people but vanishingly rare. Linnorm are viewed with extreme suspicion and tieflings who are discovered are often killed or imprisoned. Races other than these are obviously foreign, and often viewed as curiosities by the Vikings; the only ones likely to be of specific note are revenants and lycans. The former will likely be killed or imprisoned if discovered while the latter will be viewed as either favored by the gods or dangerous to the people—or both!
As for the other cultures of the world, the Vikings consider them as follows:
Romans: Really, really, REALLY good traders. Entirely too organized for their own good, and pretty stiff at parties. Individually, not terribly brave fighters (though their gladiators are excellent!), but don’t fight them in groups. Seriously. If they start forming a square, back off and shoot them with arrows.
Germans: Woodscraft makes them dangerous, and the black powder weapons they wield can pierce shields easily. Luckily, they keep to themselves for the most part.
Englishmen: That wall and the Picts keeps their horses away, and that’s a good thing. While we could probably take all of their lands, because they don’t know how to fight together worth a damn since they’re too busy fighting each other, it’d cost too many men.
Romanians: Leave those creepy bastards alone.
Asians: We’ve heard rumors that they have interesting magics, and their craftsmanship astounds even the Romans. They also have warriors who go into battle without any weapons at all! Yet they drink…tea, and have odd ideas about what is polite…
“Pirates”: We’ve been raiding for a few hundred years, we’ve got faster and more maneuverable ships, and we know how to fight hand-to-hand. Maybe if they could maneuver well enough against us to hit us with cannons, it’d be something to worry about. Since they can’t, and their idea of headgear is a hat instead of a helmet, well, axes’ll do just fine against those one-shot gun things.
While all Norse people share the same basic traits, different regions have slight variations on the things they consider important. For specific regions, see the following.
Denmark, Sweden, Scotland
The Danes are the most eager to see the Norse kingdoms reestablished, and they are in the best position to do so. Despite losing most of their country to enemies, their trade links have kept them relatively prosperous. A Danish Viking is most likely to be a successful raider, and is likely second only to a Garðaríki norseman in terms of distances travelled (and probably moreso, if you count sea travels). Hedeby has more descendants of refugees from Iceland than any other Norse nation and while the Icelandic folk try to keep their culture alive, they’re dwindling in numbers and only a handful remain. Most live in Hollingsted.
The Swedes, holding out in Anna Uppsala, are the most faithful of the Norse. As much as the Danes are eager to bring back the Chosen, it is the Swedes who keep the sacrifices and prayers going. They do not have many able-bodied warriors left, however, and rely upon Hedeby and Holmsgard to provide their lifelines.
The Scots are in a peculiar position. Having dominated the original tribes, they still face the thorny problem of the Picts to the south, woad-painted barbarians who’ve forged alliances with the local giants and forest Linnorm and who are so dangerous that the English have built a wall to keep them out. The wall’s a good thing, for it’s certain that without it the Vikings would be at war with England as well as the Picts. Some trade takes place with the English Lords to the south regardless, but not as much as one might think.